Paul Dano's austere "Wildlife" is anchored by a sublime Carey Mulligan performance

What can I say about Paul Dano‘s “Wildlife”? It's a sluggishly austere film that lacks any kind of personality or poignancy but, hey, in this day and age of style over substance, I do understand why this otherwise strongly directed and photgraphed picture is being favorably reviewed by most critics. Dano shows a real knack for distilled, freezingly detached framing. You can tell he's learned a thing or two from working with Paul Thomas Anderson — the photo snapping sequences in "Wildlife" will remind any knowledgeable cinephile of the mall photo scenes in "The Master."


Dano's film is perversely middle-class, it oozes with the working-class angst that must have been creeping into American society in the late 50s/early 60s. Change was coming, but people weren't entirely aware of it, angst was slowly sneaking into the fray. 

Carey Mulligan‘s performance as a cheating mom in small-town Montana rings harrowingly true. But the overall, gloomily doomsday-ic feel that Dano goes for is impenetrable.

As great as Mulligan is, and she wholly deserves awards attention, the self-destructive behavior of her Jeanette, abandoned by her husband Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) who decides to go off and fight forest fires with local volunteers, results in her all-but inviting 14 year-old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) to participate in the extra-marital affair she has with a small-town millionaire (Bill Camp). 

The parenting in "Wildlife" is, shall we say, less than ordinary, presumptuously irresponsible. It's not just Jeanette. Joe has abandoned his family before this latest episode, we're not given answers as to why, but there is clear discontentment on his part, his departures seem to be a way for him to slip off-radar, neglect the patriarchal duties that he is supposed to be afford to the household. He's just as pathetic a figure as Jeanette.  

"Wildlife" is an adaptation of a 1990 Richard Ford novel and was written for the screen by Dano and long-time partner Zoe Kazan. They make something formidable and respectful out of Ford's words, it's in the behind-the-cracks details that the film truly gains any of its power, the unspoken words and actions of its characters if you will. However, its lack of dramatic tension does keep you at a far distance, making you admire its craft rather rather than bonding with it — which is precisely, and maybe mistakenly, what its filmmaker intends his film to be.

I came out of "Wildlife" well aware of Dano's rising talents as a filmmaker, he delivers the goods here in the kind of maturely authentic ways most 34 year old filmmakers can only dream of technically ataining. He's no doubt wise for his young age and has learned a wide array of directorial tricks working over the years with PTA, Villeneuve, McQueen, Joon-ho Bong, Sorrentino, Reichardt, and Rian Johnson. That's quite the list of auteurs for such a young acting career — and enough experience watching, ever attentively, these masters work their craft to create a film like "Wildlife." [B-]